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Le bon mot: texts for vocalises.

TEACHERS USUALLY AGREE THAT PRACTICING is an integral part of any singer's daily routine, and try to encourage students to establish good practice habits. Regular practice reinforces physical and mental skills that the musician, like any athlete, needs in order to perform well. These include finely tuned and efficient muscular co-ordinations involved in good breathing, healthy phonation, vocal resonation, and foreign language diction, as well as mental skills connected with accurate memory and extended concentration. Practicing also enables the singer to control nervous anxiety in performance. For younger singers, success in auditions depends directly on these physical and mental skills and the control the performer has over them under duress.

The practice session usually begins with warm-up exercises or vocalises that are the equivalent of stretching exercises in the gymnasium; these generally are considered to be crucial to the singer's body as well as the voice. Vocal warm-ups have multiple purposes and might be grouped in several categories:

* Stretching/loosening/relaxation exercises for both body and voice.

* Breathing exercises that facilitate intercostal diaphragmatic breath support.

* Concentration exercises that employ repeated intercostal diaphragmatic breathing to relax the body and calm and focus the mind.

* Singing exercises that prepare the vocal instrument for the various physical mental, vocal, and musical tasks that the singer will encounter in the repertory.

Practicing this latter category of singing exercises or vocalises is the subject of the present discussion. In any practice session, singing exercises usually precedes singing repertory. The specific content of exercises is critical to any student's musical and vocal development, and can enhance or impede success in performance. Exercises typically consist of short and long scales, short and long arpeggios, and combinations of scales and arpeggios with simple rhythm patterns that are sung to vowels or syllables. Each one normally poses a technical problem that the singer solves by repeating the exercise several times in practice. The problems are many and may include such things as legato singing over register breaks; rapid articulation of vowels or consonants; increasing the vocal range; extended passagework; sustained legato singing; dynamic contrast and messa di voce; leaps; etc. In a single practice session, the singer might sing six or eight vocalises for fifteen or twenty minutes before proceeding to repertory the exercises are designed to prepare. In singing exercises thoughtfully and carefully, the singer ought to progress from the technician accomplishing the specific task set by each exercise to the musician who sings every exercise as an artist. In such singing, technical ability is subordinated to expression and the voice is ready for the more sophisticated demands of repertory. Ideally, the repetition of vocalises should permit the singer to experience physical sensations that can be repeated, internalized over time, and eventually made automatic in performance.

Of course, practicing must occur daily (or nearly so) over several years in order to result in consistent high quality vocal success. Although daily practicing may be an idealistic goal, it ought to be a ritual for the musician, as necessary for emotional and physical wellbeing as eating and sleeping. Over time it results in the building of musical skills, mental concentration, and physical pleasure that are just as necessary to good singing as beautiful tone and good technique. Habitual practice is required for maintaining a high level of musical skills that, if ignored, dwindle and diminish. Such skills include sight-reading, keyboard playing, harmonic analysis, understanding of counterpoint, dissonance, musical imagery, and language. Musical skills enable the singer to become independent in learning and interpreting music and poetry. Long term musical development and artistic growth, significant requirements for any serious musician, depend on the nurture and care of musical skills and abilities that in turn result from frequent, regular practice.

Practicing, when ritualized, actually constitutes a form of meditation that focuses intellect and calms and orders emotions, enabling artistic expression that will be displayed in performance. In this type of musical meditation, everyday mental juggling and multitasking are exchanged for relaxed yet intense concentration on the body and the music at hand. This concentration allows the accurate learning and performing of lengthy pieces of music in multiple foreign languages and contrasting styles. Most importantly, such concentration is the means through which the musician plays or sings within him- or herself, allowing the appreciation and love of the music to flourish and be communicated to the listener. Without it, no truly profound interpretation of a text or a piece is possible. And without practice, such concentration is not reliable in performance.

Effective practice also results in physical pleasure. Practice encourages calm focus on various kinesthetic sensations involved in breathing, open throat, balanced resonation, flow of the breath, and vibrant, flexible tone. During singing, these physical sensations interact as a balanced functional unity in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. (1) Even fifteen minutes spent singing thoughtfully should make a singer feel physically aligned, vocally coordinated, and enjoying a sense of well-being greater than before the fifteen minutes began. An hour spent correctly should produce a physical enjoyment of using the body to release the voice, intellectual pleasure in the demands of the music, and a confidence and satisfaction felt by the musician practicing his or her craft. Physical awareness of this whole is a source of profound joy. Experience of it in performance communicates physical ease and pleasure to the audience. There is no substitute for practicing because the practice session nourishes and sustains the musician as an artist.

Exercises or vocalises are an important component of any practice routine and are generally taught to the beginning student as a means of establishing good vocal technique (good breath support, balanced resonation, even scale, etc.). Advanced students with good basic technique use more sophisticated vocalises to warm up and prepare for demanding repertory that might require extended passagework, extremes of dynamics, brilliant high notes, and good vocal stamina. As in the gym, repetition of exercises teaches particular muscular coordinations and habits, on which good musicianship and successful performance depend. In this context the specific exercises that are repeated in practice are critical to the success of individual pieces of repertory. Exercises ideally should be tailored to the singer's technical needs and to the music that he or she wishes to learn. They should be the "trick" whereby the student is able to successfully negotiate the demands of the music, particularly when these involve new or extended techniques. Several properly devised warm-ups ought to result in physical alignment and coordination that enable good singing. As such, they should be embraced by every singer as the "magic formula" that ensures comfort, musicality, and success.

Yet, it is in the area of vocalises that student reluctance to practice emerges most strongly. It is difficult to get students to practice as much as they should. Teenagers especially resist the habit of regular, frequent practice sessions with good mental concentration. Even older students may not be noticeably more virtuous. Graduate students frequently report that they really did not practice adequately as undergrads; many admit to memorizing music at the last possible point before the dress rehearsal, or relying on a good conductor or coach in rehearsal instead of putting in time in the practice room. Adult avocational students usually work a forty hour week and find that even a half hour of practice time on weekday evenings after a full day in the office often is asking too much. In addition, the attitude of students toward vocalises is frequently poor; teachers understand the purpose of vocalises, but students often do not. As a result, practicing lacks motivation, direction, and intent. Students typically find vocalises repetitious, boring, or tedious, and they resist practicing them, can't remember them, lose their practice CDs, and so on.

In addition, traditional vocalises themselves may involve some drawbacks. They usually are much shorter than the pieces of repertory they are designed to improve. They generally involve the same brief musical pattern repeated many times, which may become a rut, instead of a shortcut to the song. They almost always are sung on vowel sounds or syllables, unlike songs, which involve "real" language containing both vowels and consonants in words.

One means of capturing student attention and rendering exercises more interesting is to write short texts to accompany melodic patterns. If students sing actual words, instead of merely vowels or syllables with the musical patterns, they often can remember the exercises more accurately. Of course, vocalises with words are nothing new. The famous nineteenth century pedagogue Nicola Vaccai wrote a vocal method consisting of short pieces with texts for his students. These are longer than vocalises, but shorter than songs, and employ various melodic and rhythmic patterns with carefully selected words to effect technical development. Still employed today, these exercises develop, among other things, legato, balanced resonation, vocal stamina, and correct tongue position for Italian.

However, although the Italian language undeniably enhances singing in English, it cannot effectively rehearse all the additional English language vowel sounds. Neither can it cope with the relatively clipped separation of each English word, or the strongly accented one-syllable words with which English poetic lines tend to end. Eventually the American singer will have to find a means of sustaining a good legato while articulating our far less flowing language. Writing texts to vocalises is one means of establishing warm-up exercises that can be tailored directly to the needs of individual students in specific songs. While vocalises with vowel sounds or syllables alone are still both possible and desirable, exercises with words can serve a whole range of purposes, not least among which is to get students to practice longer, and with good concentration and understanding.

In creating texts for vocalises, the "trick" is in the vowels and the word rhythms of the text. The choice of words is crucial, while the actual notes are not. If one allows the text to dictate musical rhythm, then vowel shapes can affect the singing instrument most effectively. As in a good song, the rhythm of the language is the source of the musical rhythm. Since the rhythm of the words makes the musical pattern easier to remember, some vocalises can be longer and more like a song.

There are additional advantages to vocalises with words. The application of technique to the song is more direct than in an exercise with vowel sounds or syllables alone, since the vocalise text may be tailored both to the technical needs of the student and the language of the repertory he or she may be singing. The same melodic pattern may be adjusted to serve various purposes by varying register, tempo, dynamic level, and, of course, the words themselves. Another plus is that diction can be rehearsed in the language of the piece; even a series of silly unrelated words can be useful in promoting clear articulation and comfortable singing.

Wit is an ally here. Students respond well to humorous "texts" that can be more easily recalled; humor of the words focuses their attention on the musical pattern, particularly its rhythm. The singer's attention is initially captured by the text, then directed to the physical sensation of the exercise, eventually arriving at an awareness of what the exercise is designed to do. Exercises with humorous texts also allow students physically to relax. Humor provides a momentary distraction from the serious matter at hand, and produces a mental smile that decreases physical tension, allowing deeper breathing and better mental concentration. Such relaxation in turn allows students better to focus on their individual physical sensations of singing, a prerequisite to developing good and lasting vocal technique, and one that is certainly desirable in performance.


In the accompanying examples of vocalises with texts, none of the melodic patterns is particularly complicated. Any of them or the texts that accompany them here might be changed to facilitate something a student is trying to learn or improve. Alternate texts may be devised for various voice types, since vowel shapes that work for sopranos may or may not be useful for baritones or tenors.

The essential idea is that each exercise should aim for a particular physical coordination, if possible accompanied by a physical sensation, resulting in mask resonance, steady breath flow, looser jaw, etc., that can be repeated and then transferred to repertory.

Several other considerations are important.


1. Variety: Melodic patterns need to have the same wide variety they have in actual repertory: conjunct scale passages, disjunct leaps and arpeggiated patterns, and a mix of both. Variety of modes, tempi, and meters is also important, as in repertory.

2. Patterns: Melodic patterns should be similar to the repertory they are designed to improve. Patterns that mimic actual song phrases can be devised for specific pieces and given texts that aid the student. Similarly, melodic patterns may be transposed to minor keys if needed. As long as there is sufficient variety in the musical patterns, with both conjunct and disjunct patterns, vowels in the text can help to "open" the instrument and regulate the flow of air through it. The vocalises can be short or long, repetitious or varied, depending on the singer's preference, experience, and goals. Various melodic patterns can be attempted until both teacher and student are satisfied with the resulting practice routine.

3. Words: The vowel-consonant combination is more important than the melodic shape. A successful series of syllables or words may be used with a variety of melodic patterns, ascending, descending, or sung on a single pitch. A single vocalise with multiple texts thus may be applied to several situations and serve several different purposes.

Consonants are of special importance in devising good exercises. As all teachers know, consonants must be articulated without restricting resonation and legato. Generally it is important to note that all consonants (not just voiced consonants) should be resonated. In The Use and Training of the Human Voice, Arthur Lessac likens the clearly articulated consonants and consonant clusters of speech to orchestral instruments: (2) Strings: /m, n, v, z/ Winds: /l, w, y, [??]/ Brass: /r, j/

Percussion: /b, d, g, k, p, t, d[??], t[??], ts, dz/ Consonants that add breath to the sound: /f, h, s, [??], [??]/

This vivid image of consonants as sounds that actually contribute something musical to a singer's diction is pivotal for students. Rather than merely constituting a problematic element in diction, consonants add tone and resonation to the singing voice. Like vowels, they may be "nasalized" to improve resonation. The tongue position associated with each one can be felt, perfected, and made automatic. All consonants can be incorporated into vocalises: particularly useful are /m/, /n/, and /[??]/ to encourage mask resonance; /l/, /n/, and /t/ to encourage tongue independence; /j/ to lower the jaw; /tr/ or /dr/ to encourage a rolled 'r'; and so forth. Vocalises that employ rapidly articulated "tongue twisters" are particularly successful; they are humorous, memorable, and, once learned, effective in producing a relaxed, comfortable, and fluid vocal line.

Sample vocalises provided are in no sense definitive (Examples 1-2). In the field of vocal exercises, both students and teachers have strong personal preferences. Students have a nearly infinite array of needs and abilities, and teachers have traditionally been ingenious in responding to them. The reader is urged to consider composing both melody and text in the creation of new vocalises that enable and empower students. Since singers eventually will perform language in the concert hall, it seems only logical to practice language in exercises. Texts may be supplied in English or in any foreign language the singer or teacher wishes to encourage. Infusing them with wit and humor should result in a pleasant exercise of creativity for the teacher and an enjoyable occasion for the student. A few cleverly designed vocalises will result in a singer who feels relaxed, confident, comfortable, and empowered to sing. Best of all, students may practice longer!


(1.) Barbara M. Doscher, The Functional Unity of the Singing Voice (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1988), 6.

(2.) Arthur Lessac, The Use and Training of the Human Voice (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1967), 129-178.

Noted for her sensitive interpretations of French and Russian art song, Leslie Goldberg is a well known soloist in southeastern Massachusetts, where she has appeared in concert at the Newton Free Library, the St. Stephen's Cohasset Concert Series, the Bridgewater State College Tsunami Relief Concert, and the Stonehill College Nakamichi Concert Series.

Dr. Goldberg serves the faculties of Bridgewater State College and Stonehill College, in addition to maintaining a private studio. An inventive and dynamic classroom teacher, Dr. Goldberg has received an Outstanding Woman Award from the Women's Resource Center at Bridgewater State College and was the recipient of a Davis Educational Grant to integrate notebook computers into the classroom. She was a faculty member of "The Arts-Infused Classroom," a team taught course funded by the Massachusetts State Department of Education. She is a frequent workshop presenter for the Bridgewater State College Orff Schulwerk Conference, the Massachusetts Music Educators' Association, the Massachusetts Teachers' Association, and many others.

Dr. Goldberg is the Massachusetts Governor of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, and secretary of the Boston Chapter.
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Author:Goldberg, Leslie
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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